A backyard pool can offer a welcome respite from hot summer temperatures—but it can also invite trouble. A pool guest might run to dive into the deep end and fall, hitting her head on the edge of the pool. Suddenly, she’s asked you to pay for ensuing medical expenses. Instead of being caught unaware, be proactive: prepare for the unexpected and learn your duties as a pool owner.

Pool ownership comes with hefty legal responsibility. As a pool owner, you should understand the potential liability you assume in case of an accident and take proactive measures to protect you and your loved ones. If you find yourself facing a lawsuit for an accident that happened on your property, an attorney can offer you advice.

What is responsible pool ownership?

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Simply put, a responsible pool owner is one who implements awareness and safety measures.

State and county regulations vary, but in general, pool owners must create several layers of protection to safeguard against potential accidents. Keeping your pool “safe” is your responsibility.

For maximum pool safety, consider the following courses of action:

  • Construct barriers (fences) enclosing the pool. Make sure the barrier adheres to (local) height standards, has a self-closing, self-latching gate, and is higher than a child’s reach. Slats should be narrow enough to prevent a child from “slipping through.”
  • Use a pool alarm that sounds an alert when there is movement near the pool.
  • Use a pool cover that can be latched or secured.
  • Use door alarms on your house (to alert you when a child goes outside).
  • Take precautions to provide a “safe area” for swimmers by remediating unsafe conditions as they arise (for example, fix a broken step on a pool ladder, or fix a broken gate).
  • Install anti-entrapment drain covers (federal law mandates this step).
  • Have an outside telephone accessible for emergencies.
  • Take a water safety class and learn CPR.
  • Local officials (health department or building inspectors) should visit your pool and sign off on compliance.

A silent epidemic

Beyond slips and falls, pools can bring about greater dangers. Drowning is a “silent epidemic," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and serves as the leading cause of death in U.S. children ages 1-4 years. It is also the third leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in children and adolescents ages 5-19 years. Even if you do not have small children in your family or friend circle, an uninvited child could wander onto your property and get into your pool and, suddenly, the liability becomes yours.

Clifford Plunkett, a Partner with Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP, Fayetteville, Arkansas, cites a case in which he defended a client sued when an uninvited minor drowned on their property. “The law related to swimming pools raises difficult issues for property owners,” Plunkett says. “My best advice is to have a fence installed by a reputable company that will comply with all city code requirements.”

Drowning often occurs when adults are close by. An adult may turn his back for a matter of seconds, assuming someone else is watching the child. It can take only 25 seconds for a child to drown, even in the shallow end or in a baby pool, says Lois Lee, M.D., M.P.H., an emergency medicine specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Too often, horrible water tragedies become national news. According to Steven Kernie, MD, a pediatric critical-care physician at Children's Medical Center Dallas, it can be all too easy to ignore signs of danger from a drowning child. "Toddlers don't yell or splash and they sink fast,” Kernie says.

Protecting your guests—and yourself

Even with lifeguards present, 19 percent of drowning deaths involving children occur in public pools. Don Bacon, a partner at Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP's Little Rock, Arkansas office points out, "public swimming pools are not only governed by familiar concepts of tort law, but are also often regulated by state and local departments of health. Owners of public or commercial pools should be careful to follow all pertinent regulatory requirements. Applicable regulations might require, for example, lifeguards and specific signage, depending on the type of pool." Familiar signs you see posted in public pools (No Lifeguard On Duty, Caution Slippery Conditions On Pool Deck, No Running, and No Diving) exist for your safety, and for owner liability protection.

At the federal level, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act preempts state and local legislation. The Act mandates requisites for public and private pool safety, and aims to educate the public on water safety and the need for constant supervision of children around water.

Rev up the insurance on your “attractive nuisance”

Insurance companies consider a pool an “attractive nuisance.” Rather than insurance industry nomenclature, the term refers to the tort law doctrine that places liability on the landowner if a pool guest is injured.

Homeowners insurance covers pool-related injuries. However, not all homeowner’s policies are on board with pool ownership, depending on their underwriting policies. Contact your insurance agent for specifics in your case. A standard homeowner’s insurance policy offers $100,000 in coverage. Since owning a pool inherently raises your family’s liability risk, agents may recommend increasing your limit for “peace of mind” to $300,000 or $500,000. Still not comfortable? Add an umbrella policy for further coverage.

The premium you pay will likely increase as liability rises with pool ownership. Insurance companies will stipulate specific requirements to ensure coverage. For example – fences, pool covers, alarms, etc. Some insurers may not cover you at all if your pool has a slide, a diving board, or other recreational dangers. Again, check with your insurance company for specifics.

The what-ifs of pool ownership may seem daunting. Remember, though, your pool is an amenity, a veritable luxury. Maintain a position of up-to-date maintenance and take precautionary safety measures, so you can relax while you swim laps throughout the summer season.